On the Liturgical Calendar, this is the Sunday known as Trinity Sunday. It is the Sunday set aside for a commemoration or a remembrance of the Holy Trinity. We have completed Eastertide, and last Sunday was Pentecost, the fest of the descent of the Holy Spirit. All last week was Whitsunweek or Whitsuntide when the focus is on the power of the Holy Spirit. Now we turn to the Holy Trinity.
I chuckle a little because, for those of us who write and preach on religious and theological topics, this is the Sunday we fear the most, for this is the Sunday when one can sail dangerously close to the line of heresy!
I have studied theology from both the eastern and western Christian perspectives, and one of the significant differences between the two approaches is the sense of mystery. The wester, scholastic method has all but taken the mystery out of theology. The scholastic approach tens to look for answers where sometimes, there are no answers. I should not say there are no answers because there is always an answer, but it might just be so complex that we cannot understand it.
The western scholastic approach has done wonders for the study of theology. However, this approach has all but taken the mystery out of it all. There used to be a sense of awe and mystery to theology. Take the Roman Catholic and Anglican Liturgy, for example. Before the liturgical reforms of the 20th century, the priest-celebrant celebrated the Holy Mysteries facing in the same direction as the people. All the people prayed together and offered the bloodless sacrifice to God jointly. You knew something was going on up there on the altar, but we did not and could not witness it.
Roman Catholics used Latin as the language of the Liturgy. As far as we know, Jesus did not speak Latin, but Latin was the Imperial Language of Rome and was universal for some time. But the priest speaking Latin during the parts of the Liturgy that are the most spiritual added a sense of mystery to the whole thing. Please do not get me wrong; I am not advocating a return to Latin; I am simply putting my comments in perspective.
So, what about the Doctrine of the Trinity? After all, that is what this Sunday is all about.
Danger, theological content ahead!
“The Christian doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is one God, but three coeternal and consubstantial persons: the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. The three persons are distinct, yet are one “substance, essence or nature” (homoousios). In this context, a “nature” is what one is, whereas a “person” is who one is.”
If you are still with me, congratulations. Let’s see if we can break this apart a little.
The Doctrine of the Trinity was first promulgated, if you will, at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Councils are those places where theological topics are discussed and doctrines are established. These councils lasted years and usually ended with someone being excommunicated. But these councils were also necessary for the fledgling church to come to grips with what is actually believed.
This is where the tricky bits come in. The Fathers of the Council declared that God was one in three persons that were distinct from each other but the same. In the above definition that I totally stole from Wikipedia, the Greek word homoousios was used. Homoousios is the term that describes the relationship of the three persons of the Trinity with each other; they are of the SAME substance, the SAME essence, the SAME nature.
The counter belief at the Council was that the three persons of the Trinity were not the same but was similar and the Greek word for that is homoiousios, meaning SIMILAR substance, SIMILAR essence, and SIMILAR nature.
I often say that when speaking and writing about topics of theology, a precise language is needed. Sure, there can be some ambiguity in some areas, but in others, a clear and concise language is necessary and Trinitarian theology is one of those areas. During the Council of Nicaea, the debate came down to one letter, the insertion of which made on a heretic. Look closely at the words homoousios and homoiousios; in the second word, the letter “I” is inserted between the two “o’s” the insertion of that one letter was the difference between being orthodoxy and being a heretic!
Although it is one letter, the difference is significant. One is saying that the three persons are equal in their essence, and the other is saying they are simply similar. Now, this may not seem like a big deal, but in essence, it is.
But for me, and if you are still reading this you, this is where the mystery comes in. I am okay with not understanding why and how the three are distinct yet the same. I do not need to know how their essence is shared or why; I just need to know it is. I am okay with mystery; mystery strengthens my faith; it does not take anything away from it.
There are those who will fight over that letter “I.” Wars have been fought over these things. People on both sides of the argument have been stoned, beaten, excommunicated, and in some cases burned for their belief and use of the terms similar and same. Doctrine is essential, right belief is important, but it is not worth killing over.
What is crucial for me is that the Trinity represents love and intimate connection between the three persons, Creator, Sanctifier, and Redeemer, and the love shown by these three for creation is what sustains me. Out of love, God created the world. Out of Love, Jesus came to show us a different way to be with each other. And out of love, the Holy Spirit comes to help us stay on that road.
The essence, the substance, the nature of the Holy Trinity is love! And that doctrine is to remind us that our essence, our substance, and our nature is love. Love of God and Love of Neighbor. When we strip it all away, the only doctrine that really matters is the doctrine of love.